Where wild means wild!

How about watching a family of long tailed tits; great tits; several robins; nuthatches; blue tits and a wren in about ten minutes of pure rapture, looking out of the kitchen window – 900 feet up a hill on the Brecon Beacons? Autumn gets to me – that’s no secret – the reasons are so obvious that I’m not even bothering to rehearse them here; but there always comes a time, often a single day, when the black dog slinks away and feel I’ve turned a corner.

I haven’t written for a while but that’s not because I’ve been sitting in the corner weeping silently (not my style) – but because we’ve got the allotment largely under control, and we’ve spent hours and days fungus hunting. I’ve been interested in them for years but this year we’ve gone into hyperdrive; photographing, identifying and recording these beautiful and fugitive life-forms. Fungi live on decaying matter; they also share resources with plants and trees and – at this time of year especially – are the tangible evidence of the ever renewing web of life beneath the fallen leaves.

My friend Nick who graciously let me play with some serious machinery.

And so we came up to stay for a couple of days with old friends on the Brecon Beacons where they keep a smallholding. Feeding the pigs and the chickens, moving the sheep around and helping out around the place – oh and eating the freshest eggs and the best organic produce; planking and planing seasoned oak from the woods; keeping the stove going; cooking together with food grown and raised less than a couple of hundred yards away and talking, talking, talking. These are truly – and I’m avoiding the therapeutic clich√© – renewing activities. In between showers, the sky cleared and the sun shone through the raindrops, illuminating the landscape with pinpoint jewels of refracted light.

At night the Tawny owls called to one another over the sound of the springwater filling the cistern outside our bedroom in a musical series of spurts and sputters. Even the sound of a dog barking down the valley in the darkness engorges the imagination. The autumn ground was a pointillist painting in ochres offset by dazzling yellows and reds and buzzards and carrion crows called overhead. For three days we escaped the tyranny of linear time and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the greater and lesser cycles of sunrise and moonrise; season and lifespan.

Sheep on the horizon – looking as if they’re about to charge us

Even the farmhouses have their span. In the year I was born, just after the war, this cottage was derelict, and for the past thirty five years we’ve watched it come to life under the care of our friends. It’s been a home, playground and a natural history mentor to three generations of children and their friends. If intuition and imagination aren’t included among the senses how we are ever to understand how neighbourhood, community and mutual aid, along with an understanding of our vulnerability and finitude are the foundation to our flourishing. Yesterday evening we sat in the old parlour and talked by the light of the only remaining gas mantles I know of. The mantles themselves now cost something like ¬£14, but this isn’t a life of self indulgent luxury – their car has done 220,000 miles.

On Saturday we visited a couple of community projects in the village. One of them was an orchard run by the Marcher Apple Network which is a voluntary charitable organisation set up to preserve traditional apple varieties from the Welsh Marches.

They have collected and grafted all sorts of almost unknown apple varieties on to modern rootstocks and have begun to set up a DNA database so they can be identified and propagated through grafting – as a service to the future. I have to confess to scrumping a few, and trust me, they’re not all utterly delicious! One of Madame’s first jobs after leaving Art School was working as a trials assistant in a cider research station and so she was in seventh heaven as we walked around photographing some of the apples for our records. While we were there a couple of young people from the local community run pub were picking up windfalls for the apple bobbing at their Halloween party. This village is rich in community projects. You’ll see below why some apples have rudely descriptive names such as Goose Arse and Pig’s Snout

Possibly one of the ugliest apples I’ve ever seen.

Then we went up the hill to a community run woodland which we scoured for fungi and found quite a few we’ve never seen before. One of the best things about being a relative beginner in any field is the fact that even very common and well known species are exciting first time finds. A fungus like the Panther Cap – deadly poisonous – takes on a whole new reality when you’ve got down and dirty photographing it in a rain soaked woodland. Our friends were generous enough to scout the wood for new fungi for us to see – we had a ball – and then finished up down at Llangorse Lake drinking tea in the cafe as the clouds gathered over Pen y Fan.

So what could be better than eating with friends? Well cooking with them surely comes to the top of the list. I cooked one of my party pieces – Carbonnade Nimoise, and with a free run of the food stores we used some hogget leg steaks. Hogget is lamb in its second year, so it comes between lamb and mutton. Most butchers give you a funny look if you ask for it but it’s worth searching for. It’s more expensive than lamb because it’s been fed for an extra season but the flavour is marvellous. Oh what a weekend!

So here are a few of the fungi we saw – they’re not named because we need to check and double check, but they are so beautiful that they need no justification at all.

And yes, the one at the bottom is almost certainly a Panther Cap – greatly to be avoided when you’re foraging! In fact its neighbour in the centre is almost as bad. The lesson is – never forage unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing (so don’t ask me!). And if you recognise the only innocent one in the ID Parade – good for you. And I hope you’ve had as much joy from finding out as we have.

As for us, we drove home contentedly with a couple of big bags of fragrant sheep daggings in the back of the car. It’s an acquired taste I know, but they’re better than Chanel Number 5 for arousing a compost heap!

Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

The Amethyst Deceiver – and a similar phone app

Meet this wonderfully colourful and easy to identify fungus – just one of the treats we discovered on a wander yesterday through Stockhill Plantation on the Mendip Hills. The books disagree as to whether it’s edible or safe. Roger Phillips says yes and others say no – or at least to foraging them. Luckily we had the heavyweight Collins Guide with us and unlike some of our finds, Google Lens, on my phone, got it right the first time. Now I know that phone apps are a wonderful thing, but only when used with a considerable amount of caution. One or two fungi were bang on the money, but all too often the ID offered by the phone was too dodgy to trust.

I prefer to photograph the fungi carefully, including shots of the full length of the stipe (stalk) from soil to cap, some idea of the size, the gills from below and from the side and similarly the cap. Then I can take the pictures home and with a bit of luck get a sound ID. Any mycologist will object that often a proper ID relies on looking at the spores through a high powered microscope and even measuring them – in microns! – none of which I can do, so nature wins that round. So my photos aren’t taken with aesthetics as the principal aim. They’re a form of electronic notebook. The real work begins at home and it’s such good fun, like reading a fungal Agatha Christie – you know the answer’s in there somewhere!

Where phone apps like Google Lens – there are others that may well be much more reliable – so where they go wrong is in the part of our brains that really wants to trust them. There were two or three identifications yesterday that could have been dangerously misleading. I really wanted to believe that these were respectively Penny Buns – Boletus edulis and Saffron Milkcap – Lactarius deliciosus, and if I’d been a forager relying on the phone I would have given us both a nasty surprise. Another identification included a seriously hallucinatory mushroom – not the Fly Agaric or the Magic Mushroom (we were in woodland) but another deceptively innocuous one which was first cousin to the good to eat one. As I see it, the best use for the phone app is to try to discover the family and the to turn to books.

So it’s peak fungus right now, and as foraging becomes ever more popular, my plea is that we should all be careful and even with a certain and verified identification we should never over-pick at the expense of the fungus’ capacity to reproduce itself. For me, they extend the season for walking and exploring into autumn and that’s wonderful. But there’s always space for wonder at their capacity to conceal themselves in leaf litter or on grass, even though they often display luminous and occasionally garish colours. Picking them just deprives another walker from experiencing that burst of joy. My other suggestion is to join a group – not just a foraging group. There are thousands of fungi out there and some of them will blow your mind – literally if you’re not careful! You’ll learn so much from fungus forays; and notice I wrote foray and not forage.

Here are some yet to be properly identified heroes and villains amongst the racing certainties.

And here’s a shot of where we were, and as you’ll see immediately if you know and love the Mendip Hills as we do, this is yet another post-industrial site; another lead mining area that extends across the road into the Mineries which hasn’t been covered with trees and has its own flora and fauna. It’s hard to believe that over the centuries this whole site was dug over, tunnelled into and polluted with heavy metals. Now, apart from the road through the middle, it’s quiet with just the sound of the wind in the trees and a few dog walkers and nature lovers.

Is the climate emergency really a conceptual emergency?

A section of the soil strata on the appropriately named Hell’s Mouth Bay – Porth Neigwl

That’s it folks. That’s all there is!

For three centuries we had been encouraged to consider the earth simply as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs. To be forced to suspect now that it is instead a living system, a system on whose continued activity we are dependent, a system which is vulnerable and capable of failing, is extremely unnerving.

Yet the damage already done undoubtedly shows that this is so. How can we adjust to this change? As I have suggested throughout this book, in conceptual emergencies like this what we have to attend to is the nature of our imaginative visions – the world-pictures by which we live. In the vision belonging to the contractual tradition, the natural world existed only as a static background. It was imagined simply as a convenient stage to accommodate the human drama. That vision radically obscured the fact that we are ourselves an organic part of this world, that we are not detached observers but living creatures continuous with all other such creatures and constantly acting upon them. It blinded us to the thought that we might be responsible for the effect of these actions. In order now to shake the grip of that powerful vision what we need, as usual, is a different one that will shift it. We need a more realistic picture of the way the earth works, a picture which will correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please. I think that we need, in fact, the idea of Gaia.

Mary Midgley – From “Individualism and the Concept of Gaia” in “The Essential Mary Midgley” Published by Routledge, Page 350.

I was totally struck by that sentence about this being a conceptual emergency, but of course it’s a no brainer if you think how much our attitudes and unexamined core beliefs shape our actions. In a conversation with Alan Rayner last Wednesday about his book (See the post “About Glory” for more details), he said that what is needed is no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way evolution works; and I completely agree. Mary Midgley expresses this as a conceptual emergency and urges us to create new imaginative visions; “the world pictures by which we live” – and this is work for poets, artists and dreamers. A shocking piece of American research, featured in the Guardian a few days ago, showed that only 2% of American TV and film even referenced the environmental catastrophe that is barreling down towards us.

There’s a very good reason why changing the description from environmental crisis to conceptual crisis is a brilliant strategy, and that’s because moving the problem up a level takes the search for a solution out of the hands of the unholy trinity of big business, politicians and scientists and moves it back to all of us and the way we do things round here. Only a complete conceptual change supported by new visions , new hopes and an acceptance that we are a part of nature will do. The broken concept under which we are suffering is the same one that is destroying the earth and all that it is capable of doing is offering some new kind of kryptonite widget at great expense and available only to the wealthiest. Like the medical treatments of the past, their cure is to bleed the patient – and if the patient (rapidly becoming the victim) fails to get better, to bleed them again until they expire. In our case the patient is the earth and the doctors are the politicians whose fundamentally wicked attitudes were on display this week at the tory party conference.

I’m happy to count myself among the “enemies of enterprise” if by enterprise they mean the kind of extractive enterprise that impoverishes all but the most powerful and pollutes the earth. And I’m happy to count myself as part of the “anti growth coalition” for the same reason although I’m grateful for the inadvertent gift of a good rallying cry.

Just look at the photograph at the top of this piece and notice how thin is that precious layer on which we are utterly reliant for life itself. There is absolutely no need to turn this into a new religion, dance around maypoles (although that might be a lot of fun) or ingest hallucinogens – although I’m very tempted to do just that, after all at my age what’s to lose? But the identification of fungi is quite a bit harder than you might think. It’s taken me two days to provisionally identify my clifftop find as Macrolepiota excoriata – the delightfully named “Frayed Parasol” as opposed to the “Shaggy Parasol” or the Slender Parasol. Endless lexical amusement and a long draught of poetry after a week of shameful news.

Four seasons in one day

Thrift in flower!

We’re back in Snowdonia on the northern side of the Lleyn peninsula and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the weather has been very Welsh indeed. We arrived in bright sunshine on Sunday afternoon and since then we’ve had driving rain, more warm sunshine, gale force winds, a very warm night and two cold ones. The plan was to get some walking in, and while we were doing that, to look for some fungi, but Monday and Tuesday found us pretty much stuck indoors while we waited for the storm to calm down. We weren’t idle by any means, though. I’ve taken the opportunity of doing some serious reading while Madame drew.

I’ve been reading “The Essential Mary Midgley” edited by David Midgley, published by Routledge; alongside Alan Rayner’s book “The origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux” published by Springer. I often find that there’s an advantage in reading in parallel across a similar theme where one text illuminates another. Anyway – lest that implies that I’m some kind of academic I’m really not; I’m just trying to figure out what practical steps we might take firstly to understand the dodgy ideology that’s led us into the current earth crisis in order best to tackle it with something more effective than depression, banners and a set of counter arguments. Alan Rayner’s book offers a new paradigm for understanding the way that evolution works while avoiding badly understood Darwinism with its endless battles for survival, and also the triumphalist writing of Richard Dawkins and others who, like Vladimir Putin, have declared premature victory just as their new religion runs into winter and endless mud. Mary Midgley was writing with exactly the same concerns and is just a dream to read; scything off bad arguments at the knees with laugh out loud efficiency.

Anyway, between early mornings at an improvised desk and dodging the rain for a bit of fresh air, we did manage to find some Ink Caps and common Puffballs in the garden and then as soon as a wisp of blue sky appeared at lunchtime today we walked off to the clifftop and a favourite mushrooming spot. And yes, we found some field mushrooms but when I got them back to the kitchen they were a bit too wormy even for me. Still, we’ll go back tomorrow to look for some more because there’s a fine circle of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that I’ll pick and dry. They’re as tough as old boots, but dried in a string in the kitchen they make a good addition to stocks because they’re full of umami flavour. There was another fungus there that I brought back to the cottage because I didn’t know what it was. I’m doing a spore print in case that adds any light and I think it’s some kind of Dapperling but I’m no mycologist. Anyway I’ve put some photos below in case anyone can cast any light, and (although I’ve no intention of eating it) there’s no noticeable smell; the stipe is hollow towards the top and swollen towards the base and I didn’t find a ring or any significant sign of one – although it’s a mature specimen and it could have disappeared.

I think it’s really lovely that just as the wildflowers pack up for the year we get weeks of fungus hunting and then we can hunt for mosses and liverworts or lichens. Tomorrow is forecast with fine weather so we’re off to Rhiw where there’s a good fungus field according to our son, and then up to the top of Mynedd Rhiw for some fabulous views and down again to Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth bay to pack in some supplies of wonder and glory to get us through the winter.

You can stuff your truffles!

It doesn’t take long for us to find our inner forager, especially when we know a place as well as we know this. The fungi in the picture are Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushrooms. We were pleased to see them, although we didn’t collect them (I don’t recall ever having eaten them) – however they were a good sign that the season is underway and so we were a bit more switched on to see what other fungi we could find, and they were there: horse mushrooms, puffballs, waxcaps and fairy ring mushrooms – dried they’re very good in stocks but a bit too tough to be palatable.

So we went on to a tried and tested clifftop site and found the field mushrooms exactly where they’ve appeared in the past. They were a bit more difficult to collect, though, and I had to scramble across a steep cleft and down the top of a cliff to get a handful of button mushrooms – they’re the best because they’re less likely to have been attacked by grubs – the one in the photo was the best we saw but it involved a dangerous climb over a thirty foot drop so we left it. In twenty minutes we’d collected enough for breakfast plus one intruder that was probably a yellow staining mushroom, and which betrayed itself in the bag by turning chrome yellow. I’ve been caught out by them before and always because greed overcame caution or I picked them on the borders of a hedge in longer grass. Luckily I’ve never eaten them, but our cat once ate some that I put aside (she licked them because they were cooked in butter) and she was violently ill, poor thing. This particular usurper was hanging around the edge of a patch of gorse. The genuine field mushrooms prefer open grass, particularly when it’s well cropped by sheep. In our last house we lived next to the playing field of the local primary school, and every summer there was a competition between me and the local milkman to harvest the masses of mushrooms early in the morning. He was a very early riser and it turned into a bit of a competition until we agreed a truce and each left plenty for the other.

But field mushrooms are a proper treat. Overnight the kitchen filled with their fragrance and cleaned and fried this morning they turned an omelette into a feast. I do wonder a bit why people pay such fabulous prices for imported truffles. Our son’s a chef and he once gave us a whole black truffle as a Christmas present and, to be brutally honest, it tasted like the smell of a gas leak – not North Sea gas, but the old fashioned sort of towns gas. If it was as free as a field mushroom and if it grew locally we’d probably acquire a taste for them but paying fifty quid and much more for them seems more like a way of poncifying – or worse, disguising – mediocre food and just bragging about the rarity and expense. Anyway, the seasons roll on endlessly and each brings its delights; autumn fruits and fungi give way to the winter when the only show in town for a nosy naturalist are bryophytes and lichens – always something to try and identify.

We’re slowly learning how best to use the trailcam, and we’ve captured some decent videos of birds. Last night a fox was poking around in the woods below the cottage, so tonight I’ll put out some peanuts to try to lure it closer.

Yesterday on our clifftop walk I noticed something red hiding in the grass on the edge and it turned out to be a Crocosmia – goodness knows how it got there, it’s miles from the nearest garden. But what else is in flower at the moment? Given that it was a proper walk I had to be circumspect but I spotted (without being spotted) loads of yarrow, watermint, common ragwort, fleabane, a few stragglers of silverweed and ditto thrift, purple clover,lesser knapweed, red campion, bramble, meadowsweet, wild angelica and, of course heather.

Then there was one harvestman spider – I don’t know why I was so pleased to see it but I was!

And then the birds – sorry this is turning into a list, a bit of symptom possibly, but we were alerted by the insistent demands of a young shag demanding food, herring gulls in abundance, one oystercatcher hanging out in a little inlet that we climbed down to. Last year we spotted seals there and last night you could see why. A shoal of fish were leaping in the water, some of them large enough to see their dorsal fins quite clearly. The oystercatcher is a lot bigger than you’d expect when you get close. Finally, and I’m not that good at birds, there were a small number of what I think were terns, in the mix. I’ve come back and read them up a bit so when we go back I can identify them properly.

The coast path was crowded with walkers – and I mean crowded – Madame asked one group (rather challengingly I thought) where their coach was parked. Whistling sands was more crowded than we’ve ever seen it so we beat a retreat and completed our walk in the evening, rather luckily as it turned out because we picked our breakfast.

Oh and as we walked the path we found what looked like an ancient earthwork but which, I suspect was a more recent (last century) attempt to drain a large area of marsh. Luckily it hadn’t succeeded so that’s a treat for another expedition and a different set of books!

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